At a time when the United States has plummeted in the global rankings of education standards, one of the country’s largest states is poised to scrap a test designed to measure the reading and writing skills of people trying to become teachers.
Citing the fact that an outsized percentage of black and Hispanic candidates were failing the test, members of the New York state Board of Regents plans to adopt a task force's recommendation to eliminate the literacy exam, known as the Academic Literacy Skills Test, given to prospective teachers.
The move to do away with the test has been met with mixed reviews. Supporters of the exam say that eliminating it could put weak teachers in the classroom, while critics argue the test is confusing, redundant and a poor predictor of who will succeed as a teacher.
"We want high standards, without a doubt. Not every given test is going to get us there," said Leslie Soodak, a professor of education at Pace University who served on the task force that examined the state's teacher certification tests.
The literacy test was among four assessments introduced in the 2013-2014 school year as part of an effort to raise the level of elementary and secondary school teaching in the state.
It came after years of complaints from education reformers about the caliber of students entering education schools and the quality of the instruction they received there. A December 2016 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that 44 percent of the teacher-preparation programs it surveyed across the country accepted students from the bottom half of their high school classes.
Education reformers believe that tests like New York's Academic Literacy Skills Test can weed out potentially lousy teachers.
The tests, however, came under intense scrutiny for their alleged racial bias, after just 46 percent of Hispanic test-takers and 41 percent of black test-takers passed it on the first try, compared with 64 percent of white candidates.
Plus, critics said, the test's $131 price tag is too steep.
Despite a ruling by a federal judge in 2015 that the test was not discriminatory, faculty members at education schools say a test that screens out so many minorities is problematic.
"Having a white workforce really doesn't match our student body anymore," Soodak said.
Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said that the reason that blacks and Latinos don't score as well as whites on the literacy test is because of various factors like poverty and the legacy of racism. Walsh said that is the symptom on other standardized tests as well.
"There's not a test in the country that doesn't have disproportionate performance on the part of blacks and Latinos," Walsh said.
In implementing the exams, Walsh added, New York had become "light years ahead of other states" in its teacher certification regimen.
"New York put together a suite of testing products that really got at the lack of rigor in teacher prep," Walsh said.
The Academic Literacy Skills Test consists of multiple-choice questions about a series of reading selections plus a written section.
A practice test available for $20 on the New York State Education Department website features John F. Kennedy's inaugural address as one of the reading passages and asks questions like this one: "In which excerpt from the passage do Kennedy's word choices most clearly establish a tone of resolve?"
Ian Rosenblum, the executive director of the New York office of the Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for high achievement for all students, called the literacy test "a 12th grade-level assessment" -- something a high school senior should be able to pass.
Several education professors told The Associated Press the test doesn't measure anything that isn't covered in other exams students must take, including subject matter certification tests, the SAT, the GRE and tests that are part of their coursework.
Charles Sahm, the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, is a strong supporter of raising the bar for teachers. But, he said, he’s not a fan of this particular literacy test.
Sahm took the $20 practice exam and thought it was a poorly designed test with multiple-choice questions that seemed to have more than one correct answer.
"I do agree that it's not a great test," Sahm said. "I found the reading comprehension section to be kind of infuriating. I only got 21 out of 40 right."
The U.S. has for years been slipping in the world ranking for education.
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – which provides education rankings based on international tests taken by 15-year-olds in math, reading and science -- ranked the U.S. 24thout of 70 countries in reading. The country’s scores for science and math were even worse, coming at 25th and 40th, respectively.
Singapore has the highest achieving students in the world, with its teenagers coming in on top in tests in math, reading and science.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.